Barbary lions in the Tower of London

Genetic analysis confirms that the two lion skulls found during a 1937 excavation of the Tower of London are north African Barbary lions, most likely gifts for the Royal Menagerie.

Dr Richard Sabin, Curator of Mammals at London’s Natural History Museum, said the results were the first genetic evidence to clearly confirm that lions found during excavations at the Tower of London originated in north Africa.

He said: “Although we have one of the best mammal collections in the world here at the Natural History Museum, few physical remains survive of the Royal Menagerie.

“Direct animal trade between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa was not developed until the 18th Century, so our results provide new insights into the patterns of historic animal trafficking.”

I’m not sure what new insights he means. I mean, it seems to me not much can be gleaned about the pattern of the traffic from knowing about the mere existence of the lions in the middle ages.

Anyhow, it’s still just cool. There aren’t any Barbary lions left in the wild now, and there are only about 40 in captivity.

6 thoughts on “Barbary lions in the Tower of London

  1. it seems to me not much can be gleaned about the pattern of the traffic from knowing about the mere existence of the lions in the middle ages

    Well, the specific origin of any animal remains found might give a hint about trade routes and/or trade agreements. Not much to go on, for sure, but a hint at where to start looking maybe.

    Interesting story, though. The whole idea of a “Royal Menagerie” is kinda fascinating when you consider the entire social structure of the time period…were citizens starving but the lions fed? That kinda thing always comes to my mind

    1. I’m not so sure gift animals for the Royal Menagerie would necessarily be good examples of larger market structures like trade routes and agreements. They could easily have ended up in a special shipment from ruler to ruler.

      Unless they can find some specific reference to the Barbary lions in period documents, I don’t see how they could know anything at all about how they got there.

      I think about that stuff too, Shea, like how poachers would be hung for catching a rabbit in the Royal Forests. It’s amazing to think about that kind of callous wealth and control contrasted with regular people’s lives.

  2. I’m sad that there aren’t any more of those lions in the Wild… I’m pritty sure that you could get better studys of the Lions in the Wild than in Captivity.

  3. Its not to late to breed the few Barbary Lions left in the world. It would be great to rescue this beautiful cat.


  4. Fascinating piece and fascinating blog. I love London history and run a website on London called celebrate London and I absolutely adore the Tower of London. They have recently installed some model baboons at the tower to mark the opening of the Royal Beasts Exhibiton. Anyway, good luck with your blog.

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